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NORMAL - Junior guard Megan McCracken wants to reassure everyone who is worrying about the Illinois State women's basketball team.

Despite a six-game losing streak and 0-5 start in the Missouri Valley Conference, McCracken insists the Redbirds still have plenty of life.

"We're doing good," McCracken said. "We just have to keep fighting and keep working hard in practice. That's all you can do. I think we're getting it figured out."

The Redbirds (5-9 overall) open a two-game homestand at 7:05 tonight against Missouri State (8-6, 2-3) at Redbird Arena. It will be the teams' first meeting since last March when eighth-seeded ISU stunned the top-seeded Bears in the quarterfinals of the Valley Tournament, also at Redbird Arena.

That game is ancient history for a Redbird team which has struggled since losing starters Nicolle Lewis and Ashley Sandstead to season-ending knee injuries last month. McCracken has also been playing with a tendon-damaged finger on her shooting hand.

ISU is coming off a pair of wildly opposite losses which summed up their season. The Redbirds couldn't hold a 10-point second half lead at Northern Iowa and fell 75-69. Two days later ISU came out flat in the first half against archrival Bradley before rallying in the second half. The Redbirds got within four before dropping a 71-63 decision.

"Believe it or not I think our team is right there," said ISU coach Robin Pingeton. "If you look at our last couple of games I feel like we've started to grasp the understanding of how hard we have to play. We still, for lack of better terms, continue to shoot ourselves in the foot.

"We worked so hard against UNI and had that nice lead and then down the stretch we had some turnovers and forced some shots early in the shot clock. Then we go to Bradley and we didn't think the game started until one. We didn't know it started at noon.

"Those are signs of a very young team, and they want to learn and they want to get better. I see absolutely no signs of quit in them, and I wouldn't expect anything less than that. We just have to hang in there. I feel like once we can get over the hump we can get on a roll and maybe the bricks will be off our shoulders."

McCracken, who is averaging 11.2 points since returning from an early-season hip injury, agreed the Redbirds are close to breaking through.

"I don't think there's any magical answer to it," McCracken said. "We're right there in every game, but we have breakdowns. We need to put it together for 40 minutes. All you can is go to practice and try to fix the mistakes we keep on doing."

The Redbirds continue to receive solid play from freshman point guard Kristi Cirone and center Holly Hallstrom, the team's lone senior.

Cirone is the only freshman in the Valley to rank in the top 10 in more than two statistical categories. She is No. 2 in assists (4.8), No. 3 in assist/turnover ratio (1.63), No. 7 in 3-point field goals made per game (2.0) and No. 10 in scoring (14.4). Hallstrom who averages 14.0 points, is No. 2 in rebounds (8.6) and No. 3 in field goal percentage (.561).

"With our team it's so important we don't talk about getting a win," Pingeton said. "Our focus has to be on putting forth our best effort and playing as hard as we can. I think our kids will be the first to tell you they're not emptying their tanks out there on the court.

"They have to get to the point where they just let it all hang out and compete as hard as they can possibly compete."

Missouri State, which has also battled injury problems, is led by sharp-shooting senior guard Kari Koch. Koch, the 2003-'04 Valley Most Valuable Player, leads the Valley and ranks No. 2 nationally in scoring with a 22.5 average.

"Kari Koch is perhaps the best player in our league offensively," Pingeton said. "She's carrying a heavy load for that team. They've had some injuries and they've got some depth issues in their lineup as well. The difference between them and us is they have a veteran ballclub.

"They have kids like (Sarah) Klaassen and Koch that have been through it for four years, and that makes a difference. Again, it's a team we can not afford to come out and dig ourselves a hole. We have to compete from the start."

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